If you’ve seen the much-derided trailer for Catfish, you’ve already seen too much. The film tells the story of Yaniv, a handsome young New York City photographer, who is befriended via Facebook by an 8-year-old painter from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Her name is Abby, and she loves his photos. They forge an unlikely artistic partnership, and before long Yaniv is receiving paintings in the mail, fielding phone calls from Abby’s mother, and “friending” Abby’s entire family online. Gradually, though, things start to feel amiss.
Much more than The Social Network, which was mainly concerned with the genesis and business undertakings of the site, Catfish is a film about Facebook. Specifically, Catfish is about the ways in which people present themselves virtually, and the dangers of putting emotional stock in virtual interactions. Yaniv goes on a whirlwind virtual journey with Abby and company--posting, liking, texting, tagging, and eventually even talking. But the folks on the other end of the wires may not be exactly as they say they are. Something doesn’t add up.
This is where reviewers of Catfish generally shut up, as a good amount of the pleasure of watching the film comes from the anticipation and tension of not knowing what will happen when Yaniv and his cohorts finally decide to investigate the matter (he is accompanied throughout the film by two friends, filmmakers who are documenting the event.) The film builds terrific tension as it approaches this reveal. In fact, it’s so good you begin to wonder if, perhaps, the film itself is not exactly telling the full story.
Catfish presents itself as a product of the information age, constantly referencing the gadgets and widgets that fill our lives, like Google street view, Facebook, YouTube, Google Chat, and others. The secrecy surrounding the film had me wincing a bit when it failed to deliver the over-the-top, twisty turns it seemed to promise. It has only one twist, but it's a doozy, if not all that outlandish or outrageous.
So—is it “real?” Certainly, some elements of the film are wholly verifiable (characters, names and places; others far more intrepid than me have already done that leg work,) but the events are staged and staggered in such a way as to often feel a bit too crafted. It seems incredibly likely that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were getting into, and molded their filmmaking style to accommodate their ideas for a story arch. It’s not acting, exactly, but it’s not far off.
In the end, though, it really doesn't matter. It's a great fiction film, masquerading as documentary, and the ways in which it masterfully blends fact and fiction only bolster its ideas about the nature of “truth,” online and otherwise. Often, the filmmakers skirt the line well enough that even hardened cynics will briefly second guess their skepticism.
Far more than The Social Network, Catfish thoughtfully comments on the way we invent personalities for ourselves and people we don't know online. It’s a film about the difference between our virtual selves and our actual selves, and the way our human desire for contact can manifest itself in disturbing ways, particularly in the often consequence-free virtual world. We often do and say things on the web that we would never do or say in real life. Why? What do our virtual selves say about our real selves?
"There were moments when it really felt genuine," Yaniv says at one point in the film. It’s not stranger than fiction. It's just fiction. ( ..I think.)
But, given the subject matter, it really wouldn’t have done it justice any other way.